The highs and lows of Telltale’s The Walking Dead

telltale the walking dead thoughts so far

At this point, having completed four out of five episodes for season one of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, I know exactly what I like about it and exactly what is not working. It’s a shame there’s some good and bad here, as the good has the potential to outshine the bad, but then the bad is just so disappointing that it could bury the good. Yeah, that was totally clear writing.

I like adventure games, especially the point and click ilk. Please note that I didn’t say love, as I’ve really only fully experienced a few, such as Wadjet Eye’s The Blackwell Legacy series, Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP, The Sea Will Claim Everything, and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, but I had a pretty good time with those. In the past, I’ve tried playing games like Hector: Badge of Carnage, Machinarium, and Beneath a Steel Sky only to get stuck and give up in  obvious frustration. The things I often like in adventure games are the stories and the ability to click on lots of things for fun (or even bland) descriptions, and the parts I often find unwieldy are inventory management, obscure puzzles, and pixel hunting. The Walking Dead does a lot of great story work, but is hampered by none of the previous things mentioned, rather modern day quirks that really take it down a notch. Let’s start with the bad, then the good.

To begin with, the Achievements. Yes, they are meaningless things, but their inclusion in The Walking Dead is so noticeable that they have to be accounted for. Some have funny titles, often silly or referencing pop culture or even snide, especially based on the group’s current situation. The Walking Dead is not a very funny game, though there are the occasional moments or quips, but the premise itself is rather bleak, and seeing how episode four ended, it’s only gonna get darker. So earning Achievements with names like “You Fight Like a Dairy Farmer” and “Too Much Salt Will Kill You” right when emotional moments are trying to sink in is a bit like losing a loved one and then getting slammed in the face with a custard pie. Again, in the end, the Achievements are completely meaningless, it’s just that they are quite invasive when one is immersed in a world overrun by zombies.

The next problem I have might only be related to the Xbox 360, but I don’t know. It could be on other platforms, and it has to do with loading screens. They come up at the worst time, with the worst transitions to them. It’s just a simple cut away to a boring screen that says NOW LOADING… on it. For instance, near the beginning of episode four, Lee is climbing a ladder in a house to see what’s up in the attic. You actually control Lee as he climbs the steps, one by one, music swelling, the promise of something major soon to be revealed. You get to the top step and…loading screen. This is just one example, but the pacing and tone is often knocked aside on most of the loading screens as they often happen during large moments. I dunno, just like with the Achievements, they really took me out of a great gaming adventure.

Lastly, and don’t worry, I’ll get to some good stuff shortly, when you fail an action scene, more often than not, Lee dies and you reset to the start of the action. For me, this was particularly jarring. These moments where you have to shoot a zombie in a particular spot within three seconds are disappointing in that you are just thrown into it with no guidance and will most likely lose the first time. After you fail that first time, then the game tells you what you’re supposed to do. Gee, thanks. In episode two, at the motel, you used the four-pronged cursor to highlight enemies and shoot with the A button, but this time around they switched to a more traditional RT shooting convention; either way, these moments are not the greatest and seem ham-fisted for gamers that want more out of their puzzle games. I could do without, personally.

So those are the things about The Walking Dead I’m not digging. Otherwise, wow. The story is riveting, and each character comes across fully realized from the word go, making every choice a struggle, whether it’s simply a line of dialogue or a heart-breaking decision. Or, in the case of Ben, an easy one. The timer on dialogue options is a wonderful motivator, and my Lee is the kind of guy that cares deeply about Clementine and tries to keep the group happy; at first, he worked hard for Kenny’s respect, but now that matters no more. I understand that a lot of the finer plot points can’t be changed, but the small interactions between characters and the relationships you construct are where this game shines. I do play with the notifications turned on, something I’ve seen others suggest turning off, as they can potentially negatively future decisions. So far, I’m okay with them.

I will most likely be finishing up episode five tonight or this weekend, and I don’t expect any new gameplay twists to really shake up the formula. Hopefully it’s all story to the end, but I’m sure I’ll have to stumble my way through an action scene or two before the credits roll. Regardless, I’ve been pretty impressed with the effect The Walking Dead has had on me, even with a few problems. I’ll definitely be playing season two as it comes out, episode by episode, whenever that is, ready to make some choices.

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